Heading into the 2019 season, the Cleveland Indians look to continue their streak of Division Titles. 2018 marked their third in a row and fifth winning season since Terry Francona took over the manager’s seat in late 2012. Unfortunately, last year’s playoff run was a short one, and an embarrassingly one-sided affair at that, being crushed by the super team Houston Astros. Staring an aging roster in the face with several prominent players leaving via free agency, Chris Antonetti and friends moved some players and signed several bargain-bin free agents. The roster is now composed in such a way that it is lighter on guaranteed talent, but is overall younger and has several intriguing breakout candidates.

Fortunately, the team still boasts arguably the best rotation in MLB, and two of the most dynamic and fun position players to grace the sport in the last decade. The first of these is my beloved Francisco Lindor, he of the 10,000 megawatt smile and bat of silver. His glove remains excellent as well, and he would probably have multiple Gold Gloves were Andrelton Simmons still in the National League. Jose Ramirez, the second of this duo, is arguably the most Effectively Wild player on the roster, and possibly even better than Lindor from a talent standpoint.

Computer, please pull up the Cleveland Indians 2019 ZiPS Batter Projections for Rate Stats:

Intensify:

Intensify:

As someone who actively wanted Jose off of the roster when he was hitting below his weight and merely keeping shortstop warm for Lindor in early 2015, this transformation has been incredible. In the span of five years he’s gone from a bad-bodied utility player to a power-hitting, base-stealing dynamo who’s closest player projection is a first ballot Hall of Famer.

A few more things you should know about Jose:

  • His swag tool is an easy 80.
  • He has a Super Saiyan haircut.
  • He is a Mario Kart God.

And most importantly, he is a Yankee killer (at least during the regular season) with a .368/.408/.607 triple slash line against them.

The one negative thing is that he slumped badly during the last month-and-a-half of the season in 2018, potentially costing him the MVP. After two consecutive third-place-finishes in the voting, if he can keep up the kind of production he had during the first three-quarters of 2018 (On August 17, he was hitting .303/.414/.640. He finished the year with a .270/.383/.552 triple slash), 2019 might be the year he brings home an MVP award. A better performance in the playoffs would help as well (He hit .000/.083/.000 against the Astros in the ALDS).

“Jose Ramirez
Hits dingers and runs a lot
But only in Summer.”

—an anonymous, salty Cleveland fan

Returning back to the team as a whole, the Indians will win 92 games in 2019. Maybe more. Maybe less. I’m no Sam Miller.

What I can say with certainty is that Progressive Field will have excellent giveaways this year, as they always do. I am a bit of a bobblehead aficionado, and they will be having three bobblehead giveaways at the park this year. They will be on May 25, June 5, and August 24 and will feature franchise darling Francisco Lindor, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater character look-a-like but actual MLB pitcher Mike Clevinger, and hometown hero and current first base coach Sandy Alomar. I would recommend checking the schedule for everything they’re giving away, as there appear to be more promotions than usual to commemorate the All Star Game being in Cleveland this summer.

For 2019, I would say that the Indians theme song is, “Dare to Be Stupid,” by Weird Al Yankovic. In other words, where other teams are zigging, the Indians will need to zag. As big market teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Astros have built their own super-analytics departments, the Indians have lost their advantage and need to find a new one. Hopefully they don’t stick their head in the microwave though.

Finally, there is one more thing I want to discuss. I could talk about the bullpen (spoiler alert: it *should* be better than last year because I don’t think it’s humanly possible for it to be worse). I could talk about the outfield (spoiler alert: it’ll probably be okay, it sure would’ve been nice if they’d signed AJ Pollock or traded for Yasiel Puig but Cleveland doesn’t do these kind of things). I could talk about the fabled return of Carlos Santana (spoiler alert: he’ll continue to be Joey Votto-lite and start almost every game). I am not going to talk about any of these things though. I want to talk about probably the most underrated player on the roster. I want to talk about Roberto Perez.

Perez first debuted for the Indians in 2014, making his first appearance on July 10. He went 2-for-3 with a walk and a home run, because as I hope to convince you of, Perez is low-key awesome. He’s spent the last several years behind Yan Gomes on the depth chart, carving out a reputation as an elite defensive catcher but not much of a hitter. With the opportunity to start now with Gomes gone, Perez can show the world exactly what he can do.

“Bebo,” artist: Scott Brady

Baseball Prospectus currently projects Perez to be the best defensive catcher in baseball in 2019. While his throwing arm isn’t as elite as Gomes’ was, it is still way above average. Where Perez really excels is framing (or strike-stealing). Again returning to Baseball Prospectus, whose defensive rankings add framing for catchers (Baseball Reference and FanGraphs do not), he was the 26th most valuable defender in 2018, and the 8th most valuable catcher. The year before he was even better, finishing as the 8th most valuable defender and 5th most valuable catcher. Both years Perez was playing significantly less than everyone in front of him (73 games in 2017, 62 in 2018), it’s extremely tantalizing to think about the kind of value he could bring if he starts 120-130 games behind the plate.

Shifting gears, it’s pretty easy to make an argument that part of Perez’s offensive struggles can be attributed to playing only part time, as well as injuries he sustained over the last three years. However, he has an interesting hitter profile. Perez has always had a very good eye, with a career walk-rate of 11.2% (for perspective’s sake, Jose Ramirez is projected to have an 11.8% rate in 2019). Lindor has actually been on record saying Perez has the best eye on the team. Almost too good, as Perez’s patient approach can often lead to him taking good pitches. Still, too much discipline is better than not enough.

Perez is also very good at taking the ball the other way with power. Check out his spray charts, courtesy of FanGraphs:

Most of his singles are to the pull side, but his extra-base hits go to all fields, with a lot of his doubles ending up in right field. Is he a guy who could benefit from an increase in launch angle, perhaps something that friend and fellow Puerto Rican Francisco Lindor could help him with (Lindor notably changed his launch angle in 2017 with great success)? It’s an interesting thought.

Finally, I want to note that since his tenure began with Cleveland, Perez has had that intangible, “it,” factor, as unscientific as it sounds. The dude rakes when it has most counted. In 2015, when Yan Gomes got hurt very early in the season, Perez stepped into a starting role and played well, finishing the year with a slash line of .228/.348/.402, producing a solid 107 WRC+.

During the magical 2016 playoff run, Perez had his arguably greatest moments in an Indians uniform. In the top of the 1st inning in Game One of the ALDS, he made a crucial play at the plate that cost Boston a run after a replay-review. A couple innings later, he tied the game with an opposite field (what’d I tell you) solo home run. In his next at-bat, he hit a long single to left field, tagged to second on a Carlos Santana fly-out (not something you see everyday from a slow-footed catcher), and then scored on a Jason Kipnis single.

His play was arguably the margin of victory in that game.

Then, during Game 1 of the 2016 World Series, he did this:

For the record, only Yogi Berra, Gene Tenace, Johnny Bench, and Gary Carter had done that before him. It’s a pretty bad-ass list to be on.

After starting the year slowly due to injury, Perez came up big during the most exciting part of the 2017 campaign. During Cleveland’s epic 22-game winning streak, he hit an absurd .340/.400/.720 in 17 games. He was then arguably their best hitter during the 2017 postseason, hitting .300/.417/.600 against the Yankees in the ALDS.

2018 saw Perez relegated to even more of a backup role, as Gomes had his best season offensively since he won the Silver Slugger 2014. As I’ve already stated, I fully believe Perez will show his best stuff in 2019. So you should root for him. Root for Lindor and Ramirez because they’re amazing. Root for Kluber and Carrasco because they’re also amazing. Root for Jake Bauers and Greg Allen because they’re exciting breakout candidates. Root for Leonys Martin because he almost died last year, yet here he is smiling and tearing it up in Spring Training. Most of all though—root for Roberto Perez too.

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